Town Council grapples with travel, spending

Tail end of last week’s Town Council’s work session progressed much the same way the first hour and half of the meeting transpired, filled with heated moments and spirited speeches.

Town Council meets Monday for its regularly scheduled meeting to discuss many of these matters.

During the Jan. 6 meeting, questions arose as to filling the vacancy for the town’s slot on the Perquimans County Tourism Development Authority.

With the Jan. 9 being the deadline to fill the seat, Councilman Frank Norman cautioned that it might have been better to seek out qualified applicants in a more timely manner.

Councilman Quentin Jackson said he seeks more diversity with the TDA.

“One thing we push is diversity, but everyone else on that board – culturally, I don’t feel like we are included. When I say ‘we’ I mean African-Americans,” he said.

Jackson cited how Indian Summer Festival is no longer included in the TDA festival offerings. He said an African-American should be appointed to the TDA.

Norman added, “I hear Councilman Jackson’s concern, but I don’t think it’s going to help. TDA has made themselves quite clear to me how they feel about diversity. I don’t think it’s going to help. It hasn’t helped. We’d still have the same issues in my mind that we have had before.”

Norman said it might be best for Town Council to have a new face appointed to the TDA, so he made a motion that Councilman Jerry Mimlitsch to serve with the authority. Motion was seconded by Jackson and approved by council.

In other matters, Norman spoke of the “gaps” in information as it relates to the minutes from Town Council meetings and work sessions. Norman said after speaking to the NC School of Government and the National League of Cities, he discovered Town Hall’s information retention ability is not being done as well as it could be.

“We’re having major gaps when we ask for information, particularly about the minutes, etc.,” he said.

Norman said any information that arises from a Town meeting setting, regardless of the form that information is recorded, is required to be kept for public record. He plans to introduce a resolution so that there would be more information included within the public record about meetings.

With regard to ongoing discussions about the town’s travel policy, Norman said he’s working on a proposal to address some of those issues.

Also, Norman said he’s drafting a resolution that says that except in the case of an emergency, work sessions are to be solely about discussing issues, not making formal decisions which would be reserved for regular council meetings.

And Norman voiced his concerns about budgetary maneuvers, where funds that are set in place within a certain line item within the budget but then moved around to supplement other spending needs. He said for example, that it would be wrong if a councilman were to spend $2,000 on a Tablet computer – funds that came from the travel budget with $5,000 set aside for expenses – thus leaving $3,000 in that budget line item.

“Anybody that’s taken any accounting training at all knows, you don’t do that. It’s wrong. If it’s not illegal, it definitely lacks integrity. We need to stop doing that,” he said.

Norman said the other problem with moving money around from within a set budget is that it distorts decision making during the appropriations process.

Norman borrowed an old saying to illustrate council’s budget dilemma – stealing from Peter to pay Paul – money should not be juggled around and budgets should be firmly established.

Applying a hypothetical example, Norman said if he used $4,000 from the police department’s $10,000 budget for his travel expenses, when the police chief sought to sustain the same level of funding during budget time ($10,000), council could counter that police didn’t spend the entire amount.

Police chief would then say that while funds from the budget were moved elsewhere to pay for a councilman’s unrelated travel expenses, police department’s needs remain the same.

Using the example, Norman said that’s not fair to the police chief to have to explain why he needs the same amount of funding, but that that funds from his budget were taken and used by other departments.

“The way we do money, if a particular line item is overspent, is you come to council and do a budget amendment,” he said.

Norman said this process would provide council a better understanding of what the town’s needs are.

Jackson added that while the travel policy is what citizens are talking about presently, budget matters are not confined just to the travel expenses, but other spending matters such as training, membership dues. He said if the past council had wanted to hide spending – avoid transparency – then all of the funds would instead be held under administration budget, but that was not the case because the past council sought to promote transparency.

Jackson said for years, there never was a council budget for travel, but that was changed after he and Norman were elected to council. He explained that in years past, funds for council training had come from the administration’s budget, not any specific travel budget.

In other matters, Norman addressed ordinances that spell’s out the mayor’s powers.

Citing Chapter 1, Section 12 of the Town’s charter, Norman said, “When there is an equal division of the Board on any question or in the election of officers, the mayor may vote to break the tie, but he/she shall have no vote under any other circumstance.”

Norman continued, “Now that’s something we’ve been arguing about since I’ve raised my hand (in council). I think we need to ahead and get our ordinances in place and follow them. That’s one of the areas with which I have major concerns. I did not have this concern when this new governing board was put in place – go back and look at the minutes – the former mayor had the same problem out of me. “

Jackson joined the discussion about council’s powers and noted that spending decisions, as it relates to moving money around within budget, must be made with council’s approval, not as an individual council member. He said Town Manager Pam Hurdle is restricted by a pre-determined amount – up to $3,0000 – as to how much money can be moved around within the budget.

Jackson defended Hurdle by saying, as an example, she can’t move money from public works to the police department without council’s approval; she can only move funds within the department.

Jackson said, “I get what you guys are saying, but it’s always a scapegoat based on Mrs. Hurdle.”

Norman interjected, “I’m going to prove that it has been done.”

Jackson continued to defend Hurdle by saying she’s the first to provide weekly financial reports and when she moves money, she notifies council.

Jackson said she doesn’t have to provide information about moving money around between budget line items for council’s consideration.

Norman countered, “Yes, she does.”

Hurdle interjected that no, she does not.

Jackson asked Hurdle to “hold on” a moment before he said when she does the budget, she does the clean-up.

He used the budget policy debate to illustrate a related point about the fluid nature of council’s adherence to following the law.

“Every time we turn around as far as money – simply on money – nobody is perfect on these policies, ordinances, none of them,” he said.

Since 2017, Jackson said, Town Council has been the most scrutinized council – ever. Before then, there were no minutes kept in council work sessions, no town clerk there to record them either, he said.

“Half of the minutes and the stuff that you are looking for, you’re never going to find it,” he said.

Jackson took aim at Norman’s plans to draft a resolution limiting council action to formal meetings, not work sessions. He said according to state law, any time there’s a quorum, council can take action.

Jackson continued by talking about how his service on council has been a learning process before coming around to the travel policy, noting that no one on council knows, for example, what the travel policy is for Perquimans Board of Education or the county commission.

“Certain citizens, less than five percent, have a problem with the travel policy; they have a problem that Mr. Jackson is allowed to go to San Antonio. Unity, transparency and integrity is what they ran off of – we can see in these papers, that each of us is guilty of the law,” he said.

As people within the chambers began to leave the meeting near 10 p.m., Mayor Earnell Brown accused Jackson of filibustering.

Jackson fired back, “Every time I get to talking, making a valid point, that’s my right as a council member!”

Jackson admonished Brown to, “Do your job!”

Brown said in a firm voice, speaking to council is not the same as speaking to a congressional audience.

Jackson answered, “You don’t have the right to keep cutting somebody off every time you don’t agree with what is being said.”

Brown asked for a motion to take a 5-min recess.

There was brief debate around whether to take recess, but the meeting resumed.

Brown announced that mastercard and visa would be accepted for payment of utility bills at office, online.

As council was poised to adjourn, Jackson said he was confused and asked who authorized and which line items did the money come from to pay for the new mail boxes by the mayor’s office.

Then Jackson asked why the “Front Street 3” will not stand up to the mayor.

He said when mayor places an order to purchase stuff, no one says anything.

“I just don’t understand it,” he said. “It’s an integrity issue.”

Jackson asked Mimlitsch why things keep getting purchased even though there is a spending moratorium, one that Mimlitsch introduced.

When folks answer the mayor made the decision to buy something, Jackson said, it’s council, not the mayor who should be making these decisions.

He then reread the section from Town’s charter about the mayor’s powers that Norman had recited earlier before saying, “It says in our ordinance, our charter and state law, but yet stuff keeps getting bought. Nobody on her team will stand up to her. And you don’t see that as a problem? Everybody is preaching integrity and transparency – but every day in city hall it’s Quentin Jackson this and Quentin Jackson that... I’m asking my fellow colleagues why nobody is standing up about these issues.”

Mayor Pro Tem Ashley Hodges responded by saying in recent weeks he’s sent the Mayor emails seeking details about expenditures related to her office and any travel that she may have requested after the moratorium was put in place.

Hodges said he has received part of this information about the mayor’s office expenditures, but not heard as yet about the other inquiry involving travel because it hasn’t happened.

Brown said she has no travel planned.

Hodges then said since Norman and Jackson have alleged that money is still being spent, he would like to know during a formal future council meeting what that is.

Jackson then asked Hurdle if the mayor had authorized purchasing the mailboxes; she said yes.

Both Jackson and Norman said that the law says that mayor has no power to make this purchase.

Jackson referred to the Perquimans Weekly’s story about his travel expenses to San Antonio.

Brown then asked Jackson why he is beating up council for the newspaper’s story. She called Jackson’s assertions regarding travel expenses and other matters “ludicrous” and said he was being “unprofessional.”

Then Brown vehemently denied making travel plans. She and Norman sparred over whether she had signed documents to attend a conference.

Soon after they agreed not to argue back and forth, council’s two-hour 10-minute work session adjourned.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com